Thursday, 6 November 2014

Dilworth's Ethnic Portrayals in 'Courage the Cowardly Dog'

Academy Award nominated director John R. Dilworth’s[1] 1995 animated short film ‘The Chicken from Outer Space’, sponsored by Hanna-Barbera and Cartoon Network, was nominated for an Academy Award, an Annie Award, and a Cable ACE Award. It was re-named ‘Courage the Cowardly Dog’, and further developed as a television series in 1998, with Dilworth serving as executive producer, director, and co-writer on all 52 half-hour episodes as well as voicing numerous characters.

IMDB classified it as the world’s 26th most voted stereotype comedy show. More specifically, it is situated in the ‘comedy horror’ genre. In each episode, we are dealing with different villains having their personalities constructed depending on the episode theme. Many of these characters are highly stereotypical. This paper is offering an analysis of the ethnic stereotypes portrayed by some of the most representative ‘Courage the Cowardly Dog’ characters.

‘Courage the Cowardly Dog’ is a highly metaphorical show. Ethnic minorities are sometimes being portrayed as animals, dressed in a certain way, or using a certain kind of language in order to make it clear that they represent a certain stereotype.

Dilworth’s image design and use of texture are meant to contribute to the realistic exposure of facts. He aims at reflecting actual social realities. In an interview for Animation World Magazine, he stated: ‘We're actually using CGI and texture-mapping to create a sort of realism that's balanced with the color scheme. We've adjusted the color of the characters to fit within the world that they exist in, that's full of textured sand and wood and wallpaper and sky, so that the end result is sort of a believability level. That's what I really wanted to get across.’ Dilworth's directorial approach involves avoiding wipes, dissolves and camera pans when possible. Why? ‘Because there are no camera moves in life’ he says. ‘You don't truck out on your face because we're sitting at the table. It doesn't fit. I'm certainly not going to put it in just to remind the viewer that they're being manipulated. I use camera moves; I just don't use them in Courage – a lot, because they're not necessary. In the series, things are happening so quickly, the suspense doesn't require a lot of camera moves, or fades. What it requires is a lot of images thrown at you so that you decipher them, immediately, and then you move on.’ Dilworth also looks for ‘humanness’, which he defines as ‘the ability to portray a real emotion, a real reaction of somebody’.

Soundtrack is also a significant part of this research, as recurring characters (villains) usually have theme songs which contribute strongly to their psychological profiling. When it comes to sound effects, Dilworth favors fresh material. ‘I love sound. I look for any sound that makes me laugh. Except for music - then, it really depends upon what we're trying to portray - either suspense or comedy or action. And even then, I want nothing that's common’, he says. Terrifically accentuating the cartoon's randomness, strangeness, wackiness, and scariness are songs/tunes composed by Jody Gray and Andy Ezrin. ‘The pair has managed to construct many memorable moments on the show due to their emotional, exquisite, haunting, lilting, and zippy musical compositions that incorporate an assortment of instruments, vocalizations, and sound effects.’.

Stereotype portrayals

‘Courage the Cowardly Dog’ wrapped production as one of Cartoon Network's top-rated shows. This cartoon contains a great deal of symbolism. Some episodes are parodies of well known horror movies (ex. ‘The Exorcist’), while others have deeper meanings, touching upon more sensitive subjects, such as the question of values, principles, social issues such as prostitution, discrimination in terms of gender, sexual orientation and often in terms of ethnicity. All this made the show a very controversial one, and the public very skeptical about it being a kids’ show, even if it was aired on channels primarily meant for children.

Many of the characters in the show are given an ethnic identity, and very often, with an accent. But that is not enough to portray an ethnic stereotype. Out of these characters I have selected four villains whose personalities are, in my opinion, highly subjected to stereotyping: Katz ‘the cold British’, Shirley the Roma woman working as a medium, the incapable Indian doctor Vindaloo and the snobbish Dr. Le Quack, the French duck.

1. Katz

An anthropomorphic red cat who first appeared in the episode A Night at the Katz Motel, Katz is a smooth and sadistic feline with a British accent, and comes complete with his own background theme music. Using Pauli’s theory, I would say the music is in a paraphrasing relation with the character’s image. It is a smooth, laid-back theme song with a lot of personality and it perfectly completes Katz’s character.

Since his debut, Katz's top priority has always been helping or advancing his situation in some way. He is competitive, as shown in Katz Kandy, where he tries to force Muriel, Courage’s owner, to tell him her secret ingredient for her sweet recipes after coming in second place to her in the Nowhere Sweet Stuff Contest for years. Thus, crushing his competition is of the utmost importance. When he finds himself in an advantageous position, he does not forget to boast with arrogance. In A Night at the Katz Motel, one can even see him drink tea in the middle of an obviously victorious sports competition with Courage. Katz is particularly proud of his physical condition and practices sport regularly – needless to say, tea and sports are two things commonly associated with the British culture. Many of the world's famous sports began in Britain, including cricket, football, lawn tennis, golf and rugby.

Although in general the British are portrayed as a traditional race, they are also famed for their sense of humor. It’s true that humor is a significant part of the British culture, and comedy shows and acts in Britain are very popular. It’s a specific type of humor that British people appreciate though, which is usually based on sarcasm and irony. Katz is a sarcastic, cold character. Whenever his ‘target’ falls into one of his ingeniously built traps, he sarcastically says: ‘Pitty.’. He doesn’t really empathize with anyone but himself, perfectly portraying ‘the cold British’. The only things he shows much compassion for outside of his own interest are his ‘loves’ (his spiders). This reminded me of a famous quote signed by Jocelyn Dashwood, pointing out that the only kind of affection one could witness from a British person would be directed towards a pet: ‘No hugs, dear. I’m British. We only show affection to dogs and horses’. Nevertheless, he is always perfectly polite, unless threatened. In general the British have a reputation for being very polite and quite traditional.

Because of him being the sophisticated gentleman type, very much into sports, tea, sarcasm, well read and good with business, Katz successfully represents many British stereotypes. He also has a generally superior attitude towards everyone he comes into contact with. This fits perfectly with him being a cat, as cats are said to be aloof, independent and cold – in the case of Katz, two stereotypes intermix: an ethnic stereotype and one related to animals.

2. Shirley the Medium

Shirley is mystical fortuneteller who spends her time casting curses on those who defy morality. She despises the greedy and the inhospitable, and subjects them to spells that only repair when their sins are reversed. Ironically enough, she is very fond of money; charging heavy fees on clients and selling herself on TV are some of the ways she obtains it – one could say, much like some Roma women. In Romania, for instance, Roma women are famous for selling their clairvoyant services on TV, in newspapers, or even online, and they are famous for their tarot card reading. In the show, Shirley wears eccentric, colorful clothing and plays the saxophone – music is also often associated with the Roma population.

She first appears in Season one, in the episode called ‘Shirley the Medium’, where she is hired by the Bagges to put Eustace in contact with his dead brother who had apparently left behind a box full of money to which they could not find the key. We discover afterwards that the box did not contain actual money, but a locked curse that Shirley ultimately lifts after Courage begs her, in spite of Eustace’s greed and stubbornness. The box is highly symbolic, as Eustace ends up inside it, as we hear ‘I’m rich! I’m finally rich!’. His greed causes him to lose hiss freedom, limiting his reason and locking him inside an illusion, making him forget all about his family back home. As Shirley, the stereotyped image of the ‘freedom-loving gipsy’, comes to set him free, Eustace chooses to exchange that freedom for a box of money. We can hear him in the end, while bathing in money, as he wonders: ‘Hey... where am I gonna spend it?’

The romanticized image of the "Gypsy" is alive and well in many forms of cultural imagery: ‘They are exotic women in colorful skirts, dancing in sensual swirls. They are dark with smoldering eyes. They are carefree spirits playing the tambourine. They dance by campfires, travel in caravans, tell fortunes with crystal balls or Tarot cards.’

3. Doctor Vindaloo

An Indian doctor close to the Bagge family, one of the few people Courage considers a friend. His medical skills are questionable, and his powers of observation are even worse. He often passes off easily identifiable eccentric conditions as being of no concern with his famous line: ‘There’s nothing to worry about, nothing at all’ or ‘there is nothing I can do’, and recommends soaking as a universal remedy. With a high enough sum of money, his doctor-patient confidentiality can be bypassed, as we can see in Season 2’s episode ‘Bad Hair Day’: ‘I’m sorry, but it would be unethical to share my patient’s personal information... how much? That much? (eyes popping) What do you want to know?’.

He has a habit of plucking or shaving hair from areas of his body. He at one point owned an elephant, which he was seen once to ride, though he seems to have lost it, as he is seen putting up ‘Lost’ posters in the ‘Wrath of the Librarian’ episode. In Ancient India, owning elephants was a royal habit. The Hindu religion worships many animal deities. One of them is a stout, short man with a one-tusked elephant head named Ganesh. He is a popular Hindu god and is believed to be a remover of obstacles. He wrote the Indian epic Mahabharata while the sage Vyasa dictated to him. Ganesh is said to have made this work more eloquent and clear. Beyond religion, elephants play a significant part in other aspects of Indian culture as well. They are a constantly recurring motif in Hindu miniatures and present-day popular drawings. In ‘A Passage to India’ by E.M. Forster, elephants are a symbol of India itself.

His accent is more than obvious and impossible to ignore. Considering the fact that some of the most frequent Indian stereotypes refer to Indians as being mostly doctors or engineers, very likely to be corrupt and not very smart, the image of Doctor Vindaloo is a perfect portrayal of a typical Indian stereotype – not to mention his name, which suggests from the beginning that he is a person not to be taken too seriously.

4. Doctor LeQuack

A French con artist duck with a strong accent, basically speaking French and English at the same time, who is always trying to score a fortune. Le Quack is skilled and decisive. As a con artist, he bears many faces, every time with a strong lust for monetary gain. To achieve his purpose, he will use anyone, and subject the rest to his disturbing methods of torture. His manipulative tendencies are especially harmful when paired with his devious intellect in psychological persuasion.

He first appears in the first season, starring in the twenty-second episode named after him (‘Doctor Le Quack, Amnesia Specialist’). Like most of the antagonists in the series, he is much stronger than he appears to be. His containment is short lived, as he is able to free himself from any prison and leave it in wastes behind him, proudly stating: ‘You have not seen the last of Le Quack!’. He sometimes wears a beret and always has a curvy moustache, considered to be typical of the French.

Why is the French portrayed as a duck? Precisely to illustrate the discrepancy between a supposed graceful attitude and the real behavior and intentions, and to ridicule snobbery, an element often associated with the French. Le Quack has a very strong French accent and a superior attitude, reflecting the stereotypes usually attributed to the French. His theme song features an accordion, very common in 20th century French songs called chansonettes. In the case of Le Quack, we are dealing with both counterpointing (his theme song is funny and quite light, considering the character’s personality) and paraphrasing (the accordion is a strong element of the French early and mid-20th century music).


Courage the Cowardly Dog features demented black comedy, surreal humor, sci-fi elements, and occasionally drama. This is intermixed with parodies and homage to horror, cinema, musicals, references to classic Looney Tunes, and Bob Clampettesque sequences.

Stereotypes are thus treated ironically, and so are society’s ways of discrimination against all sorts of aspects of human life – not only ethnicity, but also occupation, sexual orientation, race and so on. By hyperbolizing commonly used preconceptions, this show lures us into an image of how ridiculous the world would be if it were as we normally see/imagine it. Dilworth also does this by using a special technique where very realistic images and cartoons are intermixed.

The message intended by Dilworth in ‘Courage the Cowardly Dog’ is not in favor of stereotyping – on the contrary, as some of the villains turn out to be misunderstood instead of evil, we are taught to look at the individual and his psychological profile in order to understand him and develop an opinion based on individual observation, not the group he belongs to. Asked what he had learned in his growth as an individual during the making of Courage, John Dilworth responded candidly, ‘The one thing I learned, beyond anything else, is greater tolerance, and patience, with others. Period. That's it’.

[1] John Dilworth is an American animation director and designer whose work has been broadcasted on CBS, Showtime, HBO, FOX, Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, MTV, Canal +, and Arte. He is the founder of Stretch Films Inc., one of the leading animation design and production studios in New York City. His films have been featured in museum programs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Dilworth has produced and directed thirteen independent and sponsored short films that continue to be screened worldwide.


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